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Higher Education Bill to be Heard in Committee Today, Could Cover Full State Tuition for Best Students

Feb. 25, 2009 – Tens of thousands of Illinois students who maintain a “B” or better grade point average could receive scholarships covering the costs of college tuition and related fees under legislation introduced to the Illinois General Assembly, though opponents of the legislation say it’s too costly.

Though it’s unclear whether the proposal — House Bill 0079 — will survive a hearing in the Higher Education Committee, scheduled for 4 p.m. today, and be voted on by the entire House of Representatives, its sponsor wants the legislature to make college more affordable for the more than 800,000 students who attend school in Illinois, many of whom struggle to pay for college, but don’t qualify for government grants or scholarships.

“Middle-class students sometimes get squeezed,” said Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), the assistant majority leader and bill sponsor. “My goal is to create a program to help people in the middle… people who don’t get much elsewhere. We want to reward hard and good work.”

Lang introduced the legislation last month. The bill, titled the “Higher Education Scholarship Act,” sets state residency standards and requires students to achieve and maintain a 3.0 grade point average on a 4.0 scale, while maintaining full-time status of 30 or more credit hours per school year.

Students at the state’s nine public universities on 12 campuses and 48 community colleges would receive a scholarship covering tuition and “approved mandatory fees” not covered by other grants and scholarships. Tuition at public schools in the state ranged from about $6,000 per school year at Governors State University to just over $11,000 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2007-2008.

Students at the state’s 132 private for-profit and not-for-profit colleges and universities would receive an amount towards tuition and mandatory fees not to exceed the amount specified by the Higher Education Assistance Act, which designates $5,468 for fiscal year 2009 and adds an additional $500 for 2010.

At least one lawmaker said the state, with a budget deficit nearing $9 billion, simply can’t afford it.

“It sounds good in theory,” said Rep. Mike Bost (R-Carbondale). “To apply this in higher education, you could break the bank when we’re already broke.”

Lang admits the state’s current economic situation is the bill’s biggest obstacle.

“Economics in the state are in a dreadful place,” Lang said. “We could pass it and put it on the books, but it would be delayed until we can pay for it.”

Lang said perhaps money for the bill — whose cost the lawmaker couldn’t estimate — could come from the federal stimulus package, a potential increase in state taxes or cuts to other areas of the state budget.

The lawmaker acknowledges the first estimate was “astronomical,” however students are required to go through the financial aid process to be eligible, and this scholarship would supplement other grants, not replace them, “which will reduce the cost.”

A program in Georgia, which awards $3,500 Hope Scholarships to students who maintain a “B” average, cost that state $452.2 million in 2008-2009 and had nearly 193,000 recipients.

Undergraduate students in Illinois received nearly $3.9 billion in financial aid dollars during the fiscal year 2006-2007, about $560 million of which came from the approximately $51.5 billion state budget in fiscal year 2007, according to data published by the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

Rep. Mike Boland (D-Moline), one of the bill’s chief co-sponsors and chairman of the House’s Higher Education Committee, said he knows the expense of paying for college.

“I had a real struggle to get through school,” Boland said, noting it took him seven years to get through college, as he alternated between classes and jobs as a factory and construction worker, a custodian and “whatever I could get.”

“By being able to get through college, I was able to be a teacher,” Boland said. “I feel like I did something worthwhile.”

Boland said college graduates earn more money, pay more in taxes and “contribute more to society.”

Lang said the state would benefit from the bill in many ways.

“We have a brain-drain in Illinois. Some students never come back,” Lang said. “The idea is to keep the best and the brightest here to help Illinois.”

Data released by the Illinois Board of Higher Education shows over 24,000 “first-time students” left Illinois to attend an out-of-state institution in the fall of 2006.

The proposed bill would enable some students from out-of-state to also receive scholarships by establishing residency in the state and attending an Illinois college or university.

This isn’t the first time a bill like this has been introduced to the General Assembly.

Both Lang and Boland expressed optimism that the Higher Education Scholarship Act might pass this time.

“If it gets to the floor, I feel confident it would pass,” Boland said.

But Bost doesn’t think that will happen.

“I’ve always been opposed to it,” said Bost, a member of the Higher Education Committee that will consider the bill today. “You’ve got to weigh out the whole proposal, the whole cost. It’s more out of reach than before.”

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